BY ALLEN RABINOWITZ / AJT //
Over the course of an eight-year major league baseball career, native Atlantan Ron Blomberg had almost 1,500 plate appearances.
But on April 6, 1973, Blomberg’s first at bat in the season opener in Boston’s Fenway Park between his Yankees and the home town Red Sox propelled the “Boomer” into the record books.
It was not for a big hit – in fact he drew a base on balls against Luis Tiant – but rather for his announced position. With that appearance, the Druid Hills High School product became the first Designated Hitter (DH) ever to step up to the plate in a regular season big league game.
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“Even though I screwed up the game in 1973,” he says with a laugh, “I’m still proud of it. It’s great to be part of the history of the game of baseball.”
The DH was a controversial change, adopted by the American League before the season to boost offense by taking the bat out of the hands of weak-hitting pitchers. The team owners hoped this surge in run production would increase the average attendance of games in a pitching-strong era.
Batting sixth in the Bronx Bombers line-up, Blomberg almost was the second DH. But because the visiting New Yorkers batted first, Blomberg beat out Boston’s Orlando Cepeda for the honor of being the first DH.
Boomer made the most of the opportunity, his walk with the bases loaded driving in the first RBI by a DH. Although garnering a base hit in his second appearance, it was not enough – The BoSox beat their hated rivals 15-5.
“No one knew how it was going to play out,” remembers Blomberg four decades later. “In Spring training, we looked upon the DH as a one dimensional, part-time player – a glorified pinch hitter. To be honest, we didn’t think it would last 30 days. Everybody looked upon it as a joke, nobody thought 40 years later it would still be there. People don’t realize that the DH is the highest paid position player on the team.
“The DH was very controversial in 1973,” Blomberg continues. “It changed the whole outlook on the game of baseball. It changed the whole structure of it. Half the people love it and half the people hate it.mI speak in a lot of National League cities and a lot are for it, saying the N.L. is eventually going to have it. It gives you so many variables to use.”
Blomberg, who admits to “bleeding Yankee blue,” says that the Bronx Bombers were always his favorite major league team. He was excited when the Yankees drafted him as the first overall pick of the 1967 amateur draft.
“I was signed out of Druid Hills H.S. when I was 17,” he remembers. “I was called up at 21. I got very lucky. The Yankees were owned then by CBS and were not a very good team.”
In September, major league teams are allowed to expand their rosters from the 25 players normally carried. During this call-up period, many teams out of post-season contention bring promising youngsters up from the minor leagues to give them a chance to show their abilities in a major league setting.
Blomberg was such a call-up, and on Sept. 10, 1969 he heard legendary Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Shepard call his name. Blomberg took his place in the left-handed batter’s box against the defending World Champion Detroit Tigers.
Although the then-woebegone Yanks drew less than 20,000, the game was the nationally broadcast Game of the Week, so a much larger audience got to see Blomberg’s debut.
“It was the most incredible feeling in the world,” he remembers. “To a 21-year-old playing in the big stadium where Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford had played it was like going to heaven. That’s what I dreamed would happen and I was very, very lucky in my life to be able to reach my dream.”
Blomberg drew a walk in that at bat, but the outcome of the plate appearance was secondary to all he achieved at this point. “It was incredible,” he exclaims. “Drafted number one by the Yankees, go to the city with the largest Jewish population in the country and be accepted by the Jews up there. They took extremely good care of me. I was part of their family. From Day One, they took care of me and respected me. I’ve done so much for the New York Jewish population. I was very, very proud to be a Jew and playing in front of all these people. I had it made.”
Although feeling on top of the world, Blomberg’s career was not as fruitful as he had hoped it would be. During his eight-year career (seven years with the Yankees and his final year, 1978, with the Chicago White Sox), he played in 461 games, accumulated 391 hits for a .293 batting average, had an on base percentage of .360 and drove in 224 runs, playing first base, outfield as well as DH.
His best season was 1973, when he played 100 games hitting .329 with 99 hits, 12 home runs and 57 runs batted in to go with an on-base percentage of .395 and a slugging percentage of .496. He says the introduction of the DH didn’t factor into his great season.
“I wasn’t the DH all season,” he explains. “I was hitting .406 through August. I was reaching my potential. Unfortunately, I ran into a wall in spring training and injured my shoulder and everything went downhill.”
While growing up in Atlanta his family attended Congregation Ahavath Achim. Though he now lives in Roswell, he says he often spends the High Holidays in New York, where he goes to services at synagogues in either Riverdale in the Bronx or on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, depending upon his schedule in the city.
He calls his parents “great role models for me.” He says that Mickey Mantle served as his professional role model, and calls retired Braves manager Bobby Cox a “close, dear friend of mine and my first roomie.”
Blomberg also counts Sandy Koufax as both a role model and a friend. “I did not know Sandy then,” he says of the great lefthander who retired before Blomberg was drafted, “but I know Sandy now, and I see him once a year or so.”
Although a collection of injuries ended his playing career when he was only 30, Blomberg has kept close to the game in a number of ways. He does a number of speaking engagements for the Yankees, as well as the “Talkin’ Baseball” radio show on New York sports-talk radio station WFAN.
He has done radio/television commentary work for the Braves as well. Blomberg’s autobiography, “Designated Hebrew,” has sold over 46,000 copies and was chosen by Sports Illustrated as one of the Top 25 sports books of 2007. All proceeds from the book have been donated to a number of Jewish organizations.
Perhaps his proudest achievement is his involvement with the New Jersey Y Camp. Located in the Poconos Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania, the camp is the nation’s largest Jewish sleep away camp, drawing 4,000 campers from across the country.
“A lot of my campers have my book and they read it, they do book reports on it. I am a sports hero to these kids, someone they look up to. It’s a wonderful feeling to be a role model for Jewish kids.”
Admitting that his appearance as the game’s first DH is his major claim to fame, Blomberg nonetheless relishes the experience. The Red Sox honored that moment this past April. Along with Tiant, Cepeda and current Boston DH David Ortiz, Blomberg appeared at Fenway Park and received a standing ovation from the Boston fans, despite wearing a Yankee jersey and cap.
“I thought they were going to tear me apart,” he says with a chuckle, “but they were incredibly nice to me.”
Along with the Boston tribute, Blomberg’s achievement is being honored across the media. “It’s like a domino effect,” he explains.” I’ve been on talk shows all across the country; on ESPN and Sports Illustrated did a feature on me. It’s really been fun and it’s really been great. The day I screwed up the game of baseball is celebrated. One at bat got me all this recognition, so it’s great to be able to be part of it.”
Though he last played a major league game 35 years ago, the “Boomer” says he has very few regrets.
“I had a wonderful time,” Blomberg explains. “But because of injuries I did not live up to my potential. I had the greatest time in the world; I was in the greatest city in the world. I was on the greatest team in the world. I was living out my fantasy, and today I’m still living out my fantasy because I’m helping out so many kids.”